A Wanderer in an Alien World: Chai-Chun Chen
— Emerson Wang ’18
“between the ages of 50 and 60 something of the dream of chasing art is still fierce. Simply because art is a temple to peace-of-mind and a setting where the mind is comfortable and open.” This 2006 passage of Chai-Chun Chen’s, made during his first solo exhibition, is his recollection of the moment in 1999 when he determined to leave behind a successful career and comfortable life. Now a decade later, when talking about his artistic practice, his eyes are full of enthusiasm and a smile gradually unfolds on his shy and gentle face. The enthusiasm for artistic creation has never lessened; if anything, he is even more passionate today.
Paraphrasing the American-architect Louis Kahn, when faced with a design always asked the question: what does the building want? This quote describes Kahn’s pursuit of intrinsic self-sufficiency, searching for the natural vitality within a material. Relatedly, Aristotle said that the dichotomy of entelechy is an expression of what is potential and actual. Implicit in the idea is a psychological quality that is, in fact, also paradoxically metaphysical and, as such, cannot be directly experienced. Furthermore, because it does not work [directly] in people’s consciousness, its expression must be demonstrated through material — material such as paint, canvas, plane or shape. Through this process, the creation of the Arts achieves the satisfaction of psychological needs. This process also produces provocative perspectives and experiences. Although Chen’s artistic practice is motivated by an internal urgency — whether it is the study of material or the discussion of formal content — he must notwithstanding, express his abstract thinking through a more “material” medium. His work contrasts from the academic artist’s research on materials or narrative in representational painting or three-dimensional modeling. This is an inevitable approach and process. The viewer knows the artist through the generation of images. The Artist does not have any intent present or verify any theory of art. “Who is this artist?” The answer to this question is revealed once the viewer sees the artist’s unique aesthetic approach.
Chen’s expanding exploration of media and form grows out of his pursuit to recover a lifetime of memories and experience. In this pursuit, a special feeling for old wood and the meaning of “the life of the objects of our time” has captured his attention. Through the haptic sensation of dismantling and reconstruction, Chen reawakens our own interpretation of the past. And from this perspective, the first window to understanding the content of his creation can be opened: past history is one of his themes. The memories he pursues become the imagination of the future.
Chen’s wooden assemblages from 2015–2016 transform reclaimed boards of wood, giving old wood new life. As the original functions are transfigured by his artistic practice the assemblages reverberate with memories of Taiwan. Similar in their power to recall history as agricultural tools and toys assembled by children. While it seems that the wood has a fully new function, in fact, it is just acquiring a new rhetorical property. The process of dismantling captures fragments of memory. And through the process of handwork, healing occurs. The participation of the artist includes his history with the history of the object as do the unique impressions of viewers. As described above, through the existence of materiality and connotation, Chen’s practice is profoundly spiritual and abstract. His art is expressed through quotidian objects that can be easily identified with; the object providing viewers with a reflection of life experience. While everyone has different experiences, the recognition of the material enlightens and connects us, the viewer. To that end, Chen’s work always possesses some form of familiarity of space and memory, lightly seducing the viewer’s gaze then drawing us into the world Chen has created for us.
The similarity of human feelings is a gift—Walter Benjamin explains in his 1933 “On the Mimetic Faculty.” This shared aptitude between people is inherited from primitive human senses and natural sensibility. The common emotions that are transformed from ritual, language, dance or folk culture into perceptual language are pure language. A closer look at the various flavors of these wooden works is a kind of catalyst which is in the process of drawing back the viewer’s experience and emotional projection.
Chen’s lifelong study of calligraphy has introduced another quality to his practice. While calligraphy emphasizes strength its impulse differs from Western painting with its soft yet powerful performance. Along with calligraphy, Ink painting is one more medium he has a passion for. Crediting long periods of writing and mastering the ability to render, his abilities translate into oil and acrylic carrying the expression and transparency of calligraphy and ink. Chen’s penchant for rubbings of engraved stone has increased the power and impact of traditionally Western materials on his canvases. However, the processes are only skilled expressions of technique. What he cares most about is the integration of emotions and the (painterliness) that the picture presents. His seemingly loose and fast brushwork comes from a marriage of calligraphy and ink painting. His color is blurred and the image indistinct, large clear-rhythms are executed with fragmented color blocks, striking brush strokes and the trace of the knife, expressing abstract form with painting. What he cares about is not the recognition of the form or the subject but the far-reaching artistic conception, which is closest in spirit to Chinese painting.
In the new works of 2017 and 2018, the abstraction in Chen’s paintings has deepened. The scenery and objects that can be vaguely identified in the past have receded into simple color blocks and color has become a primary element of the schema of his investigation. While the painting may intentionally or unintentionally draw on natural and artificial images from life experience, his decisions are not made a priory; they are the result of process. Decisions grow out of his state of mind and the harmony of his eye’s vision is relied upon to provoke the use of elements of the brush. The intention satisfies psychological needs, driven to magnify emotions through his composition of color.
The American poet Walt Whitman (1819–1892) lived during the transition from Transcendentalism to Realism. As such, Whitman’s poems explore the call of the depths of the soul on the one hand and an enthusiasm for observed reality on the other. This is especially true of his important poem “Song of Myself” from “Leaves of Grass” published in 1855. It presents the embodiment not just of the poet but also of a universal humanity; the poetry analyzes oneself and exposes quotidian life. An in-depth look at Chen’s paintings shows a poet, barefooted in the soil searching his past as he gradually emerges from his response to the world around him. The many colors of the canvas echoing whispering words.
“Song of Myself” from “Leaves of Grass” No.20
I exist as I am, that is enough,
If no other in the world be aware I sit content,
And if each and all be aware I sit content
One world is aware and by far the largest to me, and that is myself,
And whether I come to my own today or in ten thousand or ten million years,
I can cheerfully take it now, or with equal cheerfulness I can wait.
My foothold is tenon’d and mortis’d in granite,
I laugh at what you call dissolution,
And I know the amplitude of time.
In 2018, his new exhibition “The Origin of the Strange World” enriches the reading of the picture. Compared with his abstract metaphysical-paintings of the past, these works are more representational in feeling, yet, they are neither truly figurative or abstract. Chen is an artist who presents his inner self in a way that communicates to the viewer and is easy to read and understand. Chen’s latest work is open-minded and relaxed, but it is more than that, it is an acceptance of oneself. It is the fruit of the process of creation, not for a goal but, for the purity of action in a singular way according to his will. Through the movement of his body, his craft plus his inner emotion is fermented and, joy is felt throughout the work. This joy springs forth from the conviction that the artist can create for many years and a luminosity is projected into the work through color and image. When the audience watches these works they will feel the inner voice of the artist.
So why is Chen a wanderer in an alien world? The received idea of what it means to be an artist grows in part from the example of artists with academic training. Is the artist defined by others or can the artist’s expectations of himself define his identity? Over the past 20 years, Chen never hesitated to embrace his identity. Over the course of his career, he has defined his own place. The German philosopher Hegel wrote: ”Nothing great in the world has ever been accomplished without passion.”